Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. Don’t take any of this as medical advice. Talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet or exercise routine. This evidence is anecdotal, and your outcome might not be the same as mine even if you do exactly the same thing. Now that that’s out of the way:
My total cholesterol level is generally okay, but I have had extremely low levels of HDL (the good cholesterol) for at least the last ten years. I had read that in general consuming a high proportion of carbohydrate (starch and sugar) in your diet is bad for your HDL level, but I didn’t think much about it for two reasons: I considered my diet to be fairly reasonable — not too high in fats or protein, with a reasonable intake of vitamins and minerals; and I had never read any specific numbers to indicate how significant the effect might be.
Then I read about Dr. Bernstein. He’s a type 1 diabetic since the 1940’s, and he advocates controlling diabetes by consuming a diet extremely low in carbohydrate — 6 grams for breakfast, 12 grams each for lunch and dinner. A typical diet in the U.S. contains as much as 400 grams of carbohydrate, or over ten times as much. A can of Coke contains about 40 grams by itself. Dr. Bernstein consumes a low-carbohydrate diet because he wants to control his blood sugar to treat his diabetes, but he also publishes his cholesterol levels. His HDL is over 100.
Then I ran into the site of Arthur DeVaney, an advocate of what he calls Evolutionary Fitness, who basically says that what was good enough for our ancestors 10,000 years ago is probably good for us, because evolutionarily we’re about the same as them. While some of his claims seem overly broad and he seems to equate correlation with causation, I assume he is telling the truth when he reports his blood levels (HDL 87) [link is now broken, sorry], and when he describes his diet (less than 100 grams carbohydrate daily).
I also read about the mechanism (this seems to be somewhat speculative — at least I couldn’t find an article I’d be willing to cite here which lays it out this directly) by which carbohydrate intake lowers HDL. Carbohydrates spike your blood sugars, which leads to excess insulin, which leads to insulin sensitivity and lower HDL.
Based on that, I decided to perform an experiment.
Beginning of November, 2008 — Total Cholesterol 190, HDL 17, Weight 205
I started with a baseline cholesterol check. Total 190, HDL 17. That was at the start of November 2008. I was relatively inactive then, and I changed nothing about my (lack of) exercise. I started by giving up soda. I included my weight in the heading above because that was an unexpected side-effect of this experiment. I didn’t go into this expecting weight-loss, but it happened. I am 6 feet 4 inches (193 centimeters) and no one considered me fat at the start, so you might say I carried it well.
What I Gave Up
I started by cutting out soda. We have a free soda machine at the office where I work, so that likely cut 80 – 120 grams of carbohydrate right there. I also gave up having Carnation Instant Breakfast in the morning. That was hard — I’ve had Instant Breakfast or Ovaltine in the morning for the last fifteen years. I cut down on milk in general. I stopped eating pasta, which I expected to be harder than it was. I really like pasta, but it wasn’t that bad giving it up. I slowly gave up bread. I started by taking one slice of bread off my sandwiches at lunch, but by the end of November I was largely bread-less. I stopped eating rice and potatoes.
What I Added
I started eating nuts in the morning, mostly almonds, cashews, and pecans. I drank more water. I switched back to whole milk from 2 percent. My goal wasn’t to go overboard with fats, but I figured that anything in something that I was going to eat anyway that reduced the percentage of calories due to carbohydrate was good. I ate sandwich meat with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise (but no bread). I ate ham for dinner, or chicken, or caesar salads (no croutons). Finally, I started taking a small amount of fiber pills and a multi-vitamin each day.
At first my stomach felt a little funny. Low-carb food just feels different rolling around in your tummy. I got used to it, and eventually it felt normal again. I found that eating a lot of protein makes you thirsty as you eat it. I would drink several glasses of water with a meal. I experienced no constipation — now forget that you read this sentence.
One Month: End of November, 2008 — Total Cholesterol 160, HDL 25, Weight 185
I got my cholesterol checked at the Minute Clinic. My overall cholesterol had dropped by 30 points, which is a very good result. Further, my HDL had increased by 8 points, which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s an increase of almost 50%. I was impressed by the results. Further, the Minute Clinic said I weighed 185. four weeks earlier I weighed about 205, so I had lost about twenty pounds. I should point out that I was not going hungry during this month. In fact, I was feeling more hungry at mealtime than usual, and eating accordingly. I often felt like I stuffed myself. My blood pressure had edged up a bit — not to unsafe levels, but it had always been very low before, so I took note. I decided to give the experiment two more months, and add exercise.
Several years ago I got a rowing machine. I love that machine. At the peak of my use of it, my overall cholesterol was 190, and my HDL was 45. Regular exercise increased my HDL more than the diet had so far, but had not reduced my overall number. I had regretfully given up rowing when my back was injured (unrelated to the rowing machine). I decided that I should add rowing back to the mix, starting slowly. I also took up snowboarding at Baldy at this point, although I don’t know how much of a factor it was since I only went about ten times over the next three months.
I didn’t change my diet much from this point. I gave up bread entirely, other than having a bite of interesting-looking dinner rolls when we went out to eat. I discovered the Carls Jr. Low Carb Six Dollar Burger.
Three Months: End of January, 2009 — Total Cholesterol 175, HDL 50, Weight 175
At three months I went to the doctor to get a cholesterol check and discuss the diet change. My total cholesterol had edged up a bit, but my HDL had shot up to a level I had never seen before. With diet and exercise, my proportion of HDL was now in the good range. I had also lost another ten pounds.
Present Day: Beginning of April, 2009 — Weight 170
I went on vacation for two weeks and ate a ton of fish. I stuck mostly to my low-carb regimen. I lost another few pounds while traveling, so I consider that a success. I don’t plan to check my cholesterol again until about June. I’ve added strength training to my routine, so I’m curious to see what impact that might have.
Follow up: Low Carb = Good Health (for me)